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(Lula) Carson McCullers (1917-1967) - original name Lula Carson Smith


American author who examined the psychology of lonely, isolated people. McCullers published only eight books. Her best known novels are The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), which she wrote at the age of twenty-two, and Reflections in a Golden Eye  (1942), set in a military base. Both of the books have been filmed. Although McCullers depicted homosexual characters and she had female lovers, she dealt with the theme of homosexuality in a wider context of alienation and dislocation.

"The late autumn sun laid a radiant haze over the new sodded winter grass of the lawn, and even in the woods the sun shone through places where the leaves were not so dense, to make fiery golden patterns on the ground. The suddenly the sun was gone. There was a chill in the air and a light, pure wind. It was time for retreat. From far away came the sound of the bugle, clarified by distance and echoing in the woods with a lost hollow tone. The night was near at hand." (from Reflections in a Golden Eye)

Lula Carson Smith (Carson McCullers) was born in Columbus, Georgia, the daughter of a well-to-do watchmaker and jeweler of French Huguenot extraction. From the age of five McCullers took piano lessons and at the age of 17 she moved to New York to study piano at Juilliard School of Music. However, she never attended the school – she managed to lose the money set aside for her tuition. McCullers worked in menial jobs and studied creative writing at Columbia and New York universities. In 1936 she published in Story magazine an autobiographical piece, 'Wunderkind,' which depicted a musical prodigy's failure and adolescent insecurity.

In 1937 she married Reeves McCullers, a failed author. Before the wedding she him told her parents that she did not want to marry him until she first had experienced sex with him. "The sexual experience was not like D.H. Lawrence," she later said. "No grand explosions or colored lights, but it gave me a chance to know Reeves better, and really learn to love him." They moved to North Carolina, living there for two years. During this time she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a novel in the Southern Gothic tradition. The title, suggested by McCullers's editor, was taken from Fiona MacLeod's poem 'The Lonely Hunter'.

Set in the 1930s in a small mill town, similar to Charlotte of the 1930s, the story tells about an adolescent girl with a passion to study music. Other major characters include an unsuccessful socialist agitator, a black physician struggling to maintain his personal dignity, a widower who owns a café, and John Singer, the deaf-mute protagonist, who is confidante of people who talk to him about loneliness and misery. When Singer's Greek mute friend goes insane, Singer is left alone. He takes a room with the Kelly family, where he is visited by the town's misfits. After discovering that his mute friend has died, Singer shoots himself – there is no one left to communicate with him.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was interpreted as an anti-fascist book when it came out. In 1968 it was filmed with Alan Arkin in the lead role. Reflections in a Golden Eye was directed by John Huston (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Some of the film was shot in New York City and on Long Island, where Huston was permitted to use an abandoned Army installation. Many of the interiors and some of the exteriors were done in Italy. "I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York," said Huston in An Open Book (1980). "Carson lived nearby, and one day when Buzz and I were out for a walk she hailed us from her doorway. She was then in her early twenties, and had already suffered the first of series of strokes that made her an invalid before she was thirty. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn't palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her affections multiplied, she only grew stronger."

McCullers's marriage turned out to be unlucky. Both she and her husband had homosexual relationships. They separated in 1940. McCullers moved to New York to live with George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. In Brooklyn McCullers became a member of the art commune February House. Among their friends were W.H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, and the burlesque stripper Gipsy Rose Lee. After World War II McCullers lived mostly in Paris. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

In 1945 McCullers remarried with Reeves. Three years later McCullers became so depressed she attempted suicide. Reeves killed himself in a Paris hotel in 1953 with an overdose of sleeping pills. McCullers's bitter-sweet play The Square Root of Wonderful (1958) was an attempt to examine these traumatic experiences. The Member of the Wedding (1946) described the feelings of a young girl at her brother's wedding. The Broadway production of the novella had a successful run in 1950-51. McCullers's best short stories include 'Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland,' collected in The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951). The title story, a novella, tells of a strong woman, Miss Amelia Evans, who falls in love with a hunchback, Cousin Lymon. At the end he destroys Miss Amelia's cafe with his lover, her former husband.

McCullers suffered throughout her life from several illnesses – she had contracted rheumatic fever at the age of fifteen and a series of strokes left her a virtual invalid in her early 30's. Carson McCullers died in New York on September 29, 1967, after a stroke and a resultant brain haemorrhage. Her final novel was Clock Without Hands (1961), which was a bestseller, but received mixed review. Sweet as a Picle and Clean as a Pig (1964) was a collection of children's verse. Her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare  (1999), she dictated during her final months.

Although McCullers's oeuvre is often described as "Southern Gothic," she produced her famous works after leaving the South. Her eccentric characters suffer from loneliness that is interpreted with deep empathy. In a discussion with the Irish critic and writer Terence De Vere White she confessed: "Writing, for me, is a search for God." This search was not acknowledged by all of her colleagues – Arthur Miller dismissed her a "minor author," but Gore Vidal praised her work as ''one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.''

For further reading: The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers by Virginia Spencer Carr (2003); Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau (2001); Critical Essays on Carson McCullers, ed. by Beverly Lyon Clark et al. (1996); Wunderkind: The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1940-1990 by Judith Giblin James (1995); Understanding Carson McCullers by V.S. Carr (1989); Carson McCullers, ed by H. Bloom (1986); Carson McCullers by M.B. McDowell (1980); The Lonely Hunter by Virginia Spencer Carr (1975); Carson McCullers by R.M. Cook (1975); Carson McCullers by D. Edmonds (1969): Carson McCullers by L. Graver (1969)

Selected works:

  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940
    -Yksinäinen sydän: romaani (suom. O.O. Aaltonen, 1950)
    - film 1968, dir. by Robert Ellis Miller, starring Alan Arkin, Sondra Locke, Laurinda Barrett
  • Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1941
    - Heijastuksia kultaisessa silmässä: romaani (suom. Kalevi Lappalainen, 1967)
    - film 1967, dir. by John Huston, starring Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Harris and Brian Keith
  • The Member of the Wedding, 1946 (adapted into stage in 1950, won the New York drama Critics Circle Award and two Donaldson Awards)
    - film 1952, dir. by Fred Zinnemann, starring Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, Brandon de Wilde
  • The Ballan of the Sad Café, 1951 (dramatized by Edward Albee in 1963)
    - Surullisen kahvilan balladi (suom. Martti Qvist, 1961)
    - film 1990, dir. by Simon Callow, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Carradine, Rod Steiger
  • The Novels and Stories, 1951
  • The Square Root of Wonderful: A Play, 1958
  • Clock Without Hands, 1961
    - Kello käy tyhjää: romaani (suom. Kirsti Jaantila, 1964)
  • Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig, 1964 (illustrated by Rolf Gérard)
  • The Mortgaged Heart, 1971 (ed. by Margarita Gachet Smith)
  • Sucker, 1986  (illustrated by James Hays)
  • Collected Stories, 1987 (introduction by Virginia Spencer Carr)
  • Illumination and Night Glare, 1999 (ed. by Carlos L. Dews)
  • Complete Novels, 2001

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